The Inca Road to Machu Picchu
|Machu Picchu: Get an eagle's-eye view from the Inca Trail|
Perched precariously on the saddle of a dramatic Andean ridge in Peru, I gaze out at the sea of mountainous peaks. It's a perfect time: the afternoon clouds are rolling back, revealing an extraordinary panorama. Laid out below me are ancient pieces of rock, cracked and weathered, set in an organized jumble. The terraced land looks like stratified rock. An imposing granite tower lords over it all. And below, 3,000 feet straight down, the Urubamba River curls around the rock, its Class V rapids pounding so hard I can hear them from above.
Welcome to Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan ruins that make up South America's best-known archaeological site. While the pyramids of Giza lie on a flat desert floor and Angkor Wat is spread out on a jungle carpet, Machu Picchu is blanketed by thick Andean jungle and surrounded by peaks. It requires a bit more perspective and a bit more effort to reach. In fact, it's perhaps the rainforest that prevented the Spanish Conquistadors from discovering Machu Picchu and kept it a secret.
Despite efforts to study Machu Picchu, it has a hazy provenance. American Hiram Bingham, who found the ruins in 1911, originally thought little of them. Later, he ginned up an argument that he had discovered Vilacamba, the legendary last stronghold of Incas on the run from the Spanish Conquistadors, but other archeologists squashed that theory. Some believe Machu Picchu was a secret Inca capital; others claim it was a religious retreat. Archaeologists presume the complex was built in the 15th century. While stones testify to the building prowess of the Incas and the crop terraces reflect their agricultural skill, the mighty Inca civilization, which rose and fell within a short 100 years, had its flaws. First and foremost, the Incas never invented writing. For that reason, if no other, Machu Picchu may always remain a mystery.
And that mystery draws hordes of visitors. There are numerous ways to get to Peru's number-one tourist attraction, including efficient and comfortable trips by helicopter or train. I chose a third option: hiking there on a reconstructed stone path called the Inca Trail. When all of the traffic converges at Machu Picchu, the crowds can get overwhelming. The key to avoiding those crowds? Spend the night on the high cliff: In the early morning and late evening, I had the site almost to myself.
And that's when I felt Machu Picchu's power.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication